I don’t remember ever thanking God for turning down one of my requests.
If someone were to ask me whether I believe in the power of prayer, I would say yes, but what I usually mean by “power of prayer” is that I can remember times when God said yes to what I asked of him.
On the other hand, even though over the years I have asked God for certain relationships, job opportunities, and other requests that I desperately wanted, I am now far enough away from some of those to know that if I had received some of them, they might have destroyed me.
Similarly, there have been times when I was rolling through life minding my own business, wanting nothing more than for God to keep it all going, when suddenly I got shoved onto some difficult path that I neither asked for nor felt adequate to handle.
Does God have anything to do with all this thwarting? In my book Nothing is Wasted, I have a chapter called “The God Who Thwarts,” but that chapter was not part of my original plan for the book. Originally in my research for the book, I was looking for hints of redemption in the universe—ways that God buries small clues of his ultimate redemption in places where we might not expect it, such as in suffering, dirt, manure, whale carcasses, storytelling, and the processes of nature. I found plenty of those examples, but eventually I noticed that redemption is also present in the thwarting—or unwanted diversions—that make up so much of life.
Getting Knocked Off the Road
Once I became attuned to the thwarting idea, I saw it everywhere. In the book I tell of a woman named Amie Longmire who made this surprising off-hand comment in the middle of a conference presentation about a different topic entirely: “I was hit by a car once while crossing the street, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.” She said she didn’t have time to tell the story, but after her presentation, I had to meet her and find out the rest of the story. Fortunately, she gave me permission to use it in my book. A quick version is that she got hit as she crossed the street during a break on a busy day at work. She was hit so hard she flipped three times and landed in the road.
How could this be the best thing that ever happened to her? She had to endure long hours of physical therapy, three MRIs, eight sets of X-rays, memory problems, sensitivity to light and noise, hip problems, and a headache that lasted for six months. However, she said the accident helped her get “unstuck.” She was doing work she didn’t want to do, and somehow surviving this accident helped give her a sense of “permission to take some risks.” Even as the paramedic was wheeling her away from the scene, he asked her if she was doing the work she really wanted to do. She answered no. After the accident, she quit her job and pursued the field that was her true calling, and she is serving in that profession today.
The God Who Thwarts
Amie literally got knocked off a road, and if you look at the Bible, you’ll see that another prominent figure also endured a literal smack-down as he walked down the road minding his own business. Paul’s trip to Damascus was thwarted by a blinding bright light and the voice of Jesus himself. Paul was stricken with temporary blindness and had to be led by the hand for the rest of the trip, but this thwarting was a turning point. He changed from being a passionate persecutor of Christians to being one of the greatest Christian leaders of all time.
I recently taught a thwarting lesson at church and asked the class to name every biblical figure they could think of who faced a crucial moment of thwarting. We filled the board with names such as Jonah, Mary, Moses, Abraham, Noah, David, Jesus’ disciples, and many others. In fact, it was hard to think of a major biblical figure who wasn’t thwarted in some big way at some point.
In spite of that biblical record, the class admitted that in our lives as Christians, we tend to see thwarting as an enemy rather than a wake-up call or God’s way of diverting us onto a better path. What if those figures of the Bible had refused to be diverted? If the disciples had refused to leave their work as fishermen or tax collectors or other roles to follow Jesus? If Jonah had continued to resist God even after his days inside the big fish?
Certainly I would not make the claim that God causes all the diversions and thwartings in life or in the Bible. The crucial element for me is not what causes them, but what we do with them when they come. Take Paul again. I think God caused the incident on the road to Damascus, but what about all those diversions to prison that he kept facing? Hard to believe God would cause those. Paul didn’t seem worried about it. He used much of his jail time to write a good portion of the New Testament.
When Paul wrote Philippians while he was in jail, he said he had “learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:11-12). Elsewhere in that book he says that the gospel had actually been advanced rather than hindered by his diversion to jail. He says “it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and are all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear” (Philippians 1:13-14).
I wish I could say that learning about the redemptive power of thwarting has made me more open to it when it comes, but my initial emotional response to it is still usually resistance. I don’t like all the disruption. But in the larger scheme of life, I am able to see that the diversions and thwartings that feel so disappointing and frustrating in the moment may ultimately be the best things that ever happen to me.
JOSEPH BENTZ is the best-selling author of When God Takes Too Long, Silent God, Pieces of Heaven, and four novels. He is professor of American literature at Azusa Pacific University. He earned a BA in English from Olivet Nazarene University and an MA and a Ph.D. in American literature from Purdue University. He lives with his wife and two children in Southern California. More information about his books and speaking can be found at www.josephbentz.com.